He left Indonesia 3½ years ago under a cloud of infamy that included a pornography charge and accusations of an extramarital affair. He returned from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia last month and was greeted like a conquering hero.

The fiery Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab has targeted Indonesia’s secular democracy for decades, using his vigilante group, the Islamic Defenders Front, to vandalize bars, persecute rival sects and attack gay and lesbian events. Now Rizieq is calling for a renewed “moral revolution” to push Indonesia toward a more conservative vision of Islam.

He has emerged as President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s most formidable foe, with an influential base of tens of thousands of followers demanding political change. His supporters say he’s defending Islam in a Muslim-majority country run by corrupt, amoral leaders. His detractors say he is an instigator who is spreading both hate and the coronavirus.

“He is a thug,” said Jajang Jahroni, a lecturer at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University, Jakarta, who wrote a book about Rizieq. “His rhetoric is really shallow. I don’t understand why so many people are impressed. When you listen, he is trying only to be provocative.”

Rizieq’s return comes as Jokowi is battling the rapidly spreading coronavirus, which has pushed Indonesia into recession for the first time since the late 1990s. The country has reported more than 17,000 COVID-19 deaths, the highest toll in Southeast Asia.

When the Saudi-educated cleric arrived at Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Jakarta, the capital, on Nov. 10, tens of thousands of supporters defied coronavirus restrictions to welcome him, clogging the main highway and forcing the delay or cancellation of dozens of flights. Days later, Rizieq invited 10,000 guests to his daughter’s wedding. Two high-ranking police chiefs were fired for not ensuring that health protocols were followed at the event.

For Rizieq, 55, flouting rules and creating controversy are second nature.

In 1998, he co-founded the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, as a civilian militia with the backing of the army to help maintain control after Suharto, Indonesia’s long-reigning military dictator, stepped down. Since then, the country has grown increasingly conservative, in part because of pressure from Rizieq’s group.

Four years ago, the FPI entered the electoral fray when it played a key role in ousting Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Basuki, a Christian and an ally of Jokowi, made a comment about the Quran that was later edited in a video to appear as though he had said the holy book had misled Muslims.

The video went viral, and FPI organized rallies to oppose Basuki. He was voted out of office, convicted of blasphemy and served nearly two years in prison.

Supporters of Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, gather at the organization's headquarters in Jakarta on Nov. 10. | AFP-JIJI
Supporters of Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, gather at the organization’s headquarters in Jakarta on Nov. 10. | AFP-JIJI

Shortly after that election, sexually explicit text messages emerged, purportedly between Rizieq and a woman who was not his wife. The police filed a pornography charge against him under a law that Rizieq himself had pushed to enact. He fled to Saudi Arabia while he and his supporters claimed that the messages were fake and that he had been framed.

The charge was dropped in 2018 for lack of evidence, police said at the time. Rizieq was scheduled to be deported from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 11, according to a spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh. He left the day before the deadline.

“He is a really polarizing figure in Indonesia,” said Ian Wilson, a senior lecturer at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, who spent time with Rizieq in his early years and watched FPI evolve from a militia outfit into a social and political movement.

“Now is their time in the sun,” he said. “They have been using demonstrations and stirring up things for 20 years and managed to move from being a peripheral vigilante group into a significant political force.”

The FPI has long seen its mission as upholding Islamic, or Shariah, law. It does not publicize its membership numbers, but analysts estimate that hundreds of thousands of Indonesians belong to the group. Even so, it is dwarfed by the country’s giant Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which together have roughly 141 million members.

“FPI is about being loud and divisive and creating spectacles,” Wilson said. “That’s how they have been able to punch above their weight.”

In his sermons, which are often laced with humor, coarse language and venomous tirades, Rizieq argues that Indonesia should be united under one God, and that since Muslims are the overwhelming majority, they should have the power to set rules for minority groups and enforce Shariah law.

Since his return, Rizieq has held half a dozen large, crowded events, including the wedding, and pledged to visit every Indonesian province in his campaign for a “moral revolution.” In response, Lt. Gen. Doni Monardo of the Indonesian army, who heads the national coronavirus task force, called on local officials to ban any events that would draw crowds in violation of health protocols.

Rizieq has avoided mandatory government testing twice, at one point taking refuge in a private Islamic hospital. The FPI says his own test was negative. But the authorities said at least 100 people who attended his recent events had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Health risks and admonitions have not seemed to deter Rizieq.

Some of his recent inflammatory remarks have once again hinted at violence. At an event in East Jakarta, he warned that beheadings like the vicious murder of a schoolteacher in France could happen in Indonesia if the police did not pursue accused blasphemers.

“If they are not investigated, don’t blame Muslims if their heads are found on the street tomorrow,” he said as his audience cheered.

At another event, he accused Jokowi and his government of leading the country into a crisis because the leaders lacked morals. In his view, being a moral person means following Shariah law.

Indonesia allows Aceh province, in the northwest, to use Shariah law, including caning offenders for adultery, theft or gambling. Under pressure from groups like FPI, local governments in other provinces have adopted more than 400 laws that implement some aspects of Shariah law, such as requiring women to wear headscarves.

Rizieq claims to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad through progeny who came to Indonesia from Yemen and were among the first to introduce Islam in the archipelago. Among many Muslims, the claim of such a connection to Muhammad gives him instant credibility.

“He is very good at capitalizing on that,” Wilson said. “For many, that makes him the default religious authority.”

As part of this branding strategy, he has also taken to using the title Imam Besar, or Grand Cleric, of Indonesia, suggesting that he ranks higher than all other Islamic leaders.

Other clerics have rejected his claim, but that has not stopped FPI from hanging hundreds of giant signs around Jakarta celebrating Rizieq’s return, many of them declaring him the “Grand Imam of Muslims in Indonesia” and reading, “Let’s Go Moral Revolution.”

The army’s top commander for Jakarta, Maj. Gen. Dudung Abdurachman, has called for disbanding the Islamic Defenders Front because of its divisive message. He ordered his troops to assist local authorities in removing the signs, which were put up without the city’s permission.

“There should be no banner inviting a revolution,” Dudung said. “Don’t disturb the unity and integrity of Jakarta. If anyone tries, I will beat them.”

But almost as fast as the signs came down, new ones were put up.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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